process/progress

One of my favorite opening lines of a poem:

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from Dean Young’s collection Beloved Infidel

This morning I woke to a warm spring rain. I hope it’s safe to say that winter is finally behind us. This winter has been a good time, a productive time, and I’m also looking forward to a new season.

In April I will start the final phase of my thesis work, and if things go as planned, I will finish my MFA by the end of May. It seems hard to believe. I’ve had many moments of doubt that I would ever finish, given all the transitions our family has been through over the past five years.

One lesson that life continues to teach me is PROCESS. Bringing our son home, learning each other, attaching, bonding, settling into a new home after a move, building new relationships, and creative work: just a few things that involve a slow, steady, and committed amount of time and attention.

I’m growing to love the writing process and one of the things I’ve valued most about being in school is the way it’s teaching me how to write: the many constructions, deconstructions and re-workings involved in creating a “finished work.” I recently read an article stating that the process of revision is not interior decorating. It’s architecture–building and re-building–the tedious work of renovation. Sometimes the structure collapses on you if it wasn’t strong enough to begin with.

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I started this still-life drawing a few months ago. Perhaps I will finish it this summer after my thesis is completed. Sometimes, though, I find that I like the look of the rough outlines contrasted with the objects that are done. It’s an image of life, is it not? We are all a constant work in progress, like rain that begins all day, like a road that stretches into a distance of blank miles.

What kind of “processes” are you currently immersed in? What is the journey teaching you?

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Aside

snow and mystery

It snowed again. This is a freakish occurrence in our particular pocket of the world. The snow has accumulated to almost a foot in some places. As I look out the window, I feel like I’m dwelling in some dreamy Scandinavian room with white walls, white floors, a few accents of natural wood, and sparse decor. Pristine and clean.

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So, we are home again. As much as I struggle with the lack of light in winter, or the cold temperatures that get into your bones, I am thankful for the creative space that winter provides. It’s always suitable weather to retreat to your favorite corner of the couch with some coffee and just think.

There’s been this poem in my head over the past few days–a poem I remember reading years ago–but couldn’t remember exactly where I’d first read it. After some digging, I was delighted to find it again. It’s by one of my favorite poets, Robert Hass. The poem, “The World as Will and Representation,” is featured on one of my favorite poetry blogs, How a Poem Happens. In this post, Hass shares the poem and discusses the process he went through to write it, as well as the process he goes through to write many of his poems.

I enjoy getting to see a bit of the “behind the scenes” in any creative work, because in my own experience, “behind the scenes” is not a composed, refined, or finished space. It is not a pristine Scandinavian room.

This particular poem that Hass shares is a narrative poem about his childhood. I suppose it suddenly came to me because I’ve been working through a few narrative poems this week and I feel that I tend to get stuck inside of them, obsessing over the details and order of how things happened, which tidbits are important to include, which things should be left out for the sake of the story and the rhythm, and what, in the end, the meaning of the story is, what the heart is. Hmmm…sounds a bit like life.

I like that Hass says he can come back to a draft after months or years before it is finally finished, and that certain poems, no matter how much struggle has gone into them, don’t ever come together, but how these poems are often precursors to the ones that just flow onto the page with ease.

The creative process is a mysterious one–mysterious like the snow we keep receiving in this coastal town–like the way our past experiences form the people we are today–like the way our minds suddenly remember something after years of forgetting.

…We get our first moral idea
About the world–about justice and power,
Gender and the order of things–from somewhere.”
–Robert Hass

That’s all for today…but one more fun tidbit…and a bit mysterious to me…I just realized yesterday that three of my favorite songs by different artists (Coldplay, Gregory Alan Isakov, and Imagine Dragons) are all called “Amsterdam.” There’s something to that city…and I suppose there’s a poem in that.

Any little mysteries in your life recently?

the creative process

There are many artists who argue that the key to success is just sitting down, everyday, and doing the work, regardless of whether or not you feel inspired. I think that this is a great discipline, and it’s a practice that I’m trying to instill in my own schedule. I can’t always afford to sit down daily. Raising three children and tending to the myriad of associated details makes this difficult, but I’m learning that it is realistic and fruitful to set two to three mornings aside each week to “do the work.”

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I’ve been working on my MFA for an embarrassing amount of time. I started back in 2008. To my credit, there have been a few children, an adoption, and several moves wedged into this time frame, and I’m grateful that I’ve been able to work at my own pace. I am finally finished with my coursework and I’m slowly plugging away on my thesis, so the end is in sight, but somedays it still feels like I will never finish. I fear that I’m not a great finisher, especially when it comes to things of a creative nature, so I am determined to prove my inner voices wrong and just get this thing done.

In the process, I am learning how to make my creative efforts a part of my life as reliably and unemotionally as any other task, whether it be feeding my children or taking out the trash. It’s easy to think that creative work is somehow superfluous to life, and therefore, should responsibly be dropped when life gets crazy. It’s taken me years to realize that my overall wellbeing is benefitted by regular times to let my creativity out. It doesn’t seem that our culture respects the fine arts in the way that it does, say, business or law or medicine, so I think that in-between the lines and starting at an early age, we learn that creativity is extra and elective. There is some truth to this, of course, and I realize that when one is in survival mode, creativity gets trumped by more immediate needs such as food and shelter. But when we are in a place where the needs on the bottom tiers of Maslow’s Triangle are getting met, I think it is wise to challenge the idea that creative efforts aren’t a true human need. They may not generate much monetary income, but in the economy of the human spirit, creative efforts are rich and rewarding. They speak to the soul.

I hope to start unpacking some thoughts on the creative process in future posts, and I would love to hear what helps you in your own creative endeavors. I suppose it looks different for everyone depending on their brain chemistry and life circumstances. At this season of life, I don’t have all day to spend on my creative projects, so I am realizing that it’s important for me to “get in the zone” quickly. That way, I can utilize most of my time actually producing rather than staring blankly at the blank page.

Being “in the zone” for me translates to coffee, music (something moody, melancholy, and soft), good sleep, my journal, and a stack of books. Sometimes I like to get out of the house and work at a coffee shop, but sometimes I like to work at home. As long as there are no screaming or whining children demanding attention, then I’m good to go! I usually have some sort of prompt to get my thoughts going, whether it’s a photo I’ve taken (images, in general, yield a wealth of ideas!), a quote I read, a poem, etc. Holding onto all of these sources of inspiration has been helpful–being more intentional about storing these tidbits away for my next work session helps me plan how I want to spend my time. My journal is scattered with random, one-line musings that I hope to some day explore further.

One of my favorite writers, Donald Miller, says to “write where the wind is blowing.” This has also been huge for me. Whenever I feel pressure to just work on one thing, my imagination tends to start shutting down. Therefore, I love giving myself permission to have several projects going at the same time. (The challenge, then, is choosing which ones are worthy of finishing and actually finishing them!)

In the same vein, I have wondered if keeping this blog is a distraction–a form of resistance in finishing my thesis–but I am realizing that keeping this blog actually helps me unpack and unload my ideas in a way that keeps the creative juices flowing. It’s been important for me to remember that I don’t need to limit myself, and that spending time on something that I “shouldn’t” be writing or painting will somehow link back and inspire the thing I “should” be doing. Nothing is wasted. Most of my ideas for poems come out of left field and at times I least expect, so keeping my options open has been beneficial for me. I came across this graphic the other day and it concisely expresses this same thought:

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The more I engage with my creativity, the more I feel generating inside of me. The more I release it, the more it fills back up again. I am learning that the creative process is circular, not linear. There is no end. Everything is connected.

I was talking with a friend of mine a few weeks ago. She is a writer but also has a day job, so she doesn’t always have a lot of time to spend on her own projects. She writes bi-weekly for an online publication, though, and she says that this habit helps to keep her creativity going. The articles she writes aren’t always what she would choose to write, but the act of sitting down and writing fills her creative bank nonetheless.

So, all of that said, what practices facilitate your own creative process? Do you have a process or a routine? What has helped you to progress and produce as an artist?